Brain Box event wows Manchester

Manchester Town City Hall was packed full of thousands of visitors when they dropped in on The Brain Box event on Sunday, as part of Manchester Day.

Over 5000 people of all ages explored the exciting science of the brain with scientists from across the region as well as experiencing brain-inspired arts in the form of images, poetry and dance.

The day was a unique collaboration between the city’s three universities: The University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and Salford University as well as Manchester City Council, MoSI, NHS Trusts, patient groups and artists, with even a float from Manchester Day parade joining the event.

The Manchester Day celebrations recognise the achievements of Manchester as a city every year and this year, to coincide with Manchester being European City of Science, the theme of the day was Eureka!

Professor Andreas Prokop from the University of Manchester and one of the main organisers of the event said:

“The Brain Box event is an important way for us, as scientists, to engage with our community, and to inspire young and old with the incredible science that happens in our city.”

An popular activity was a giant wooden sculpture of the brain, wired up by visitors throughout the day with thousands of pieces of string to reflect the complexity of the real brain’s many billions of connections.

A time-lapse film of the brain sculpture gaining it’s new connections over the course of the day will be posted soon on The Brain Box website.

The film will also be showcased at the British Pavilion in Rio at the Olympic Games illustrated the complexity of the brain’s electrical connections.

With more than 50 stands manned by over 200 volunteers, focussing on all different aspects of the brain – including the basics, vision, pain, history, learning, brain imaging and what happens when the brain goes wrong – the Brain Box provided a unique experience for the visitor.

In the historic city chambers, visitors to the event were treated to a series of talks on subjects ranging from history of our understanding of the brain to cutting edge brain-imaging technologies.

Professor Stuart Allan, another of the event’s main organisers added:

“We were delighted with how the Brain Box went: it was a huge success and everyone went home with a smile on their face.”

For a full story, check out the Storify.

Tuesday Feature Episode 23: Mike Daniels

This week we feature Mike Daniels, a PhD student who is looking at inflammation! Without further ado, here is his ‘Tuesday Feature’

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I work on the Immune system and inflammation, which is basically a process where our body releases its troops – the immune cells, in order to fight infection caused by damage of bacterial infection. What I work on specifically is one particular component of this army and that’s called the inflammasome. What’s particularly interesting is that this guy, the inflammasome, actually causes more harm than good. What we’re trying to find out is exactly how this occurs and whether we can produce drugs which will inhibit this inflammasome and hopefully use this to treat inflammatory disease.

mike daniels

How could this benefit the person reading this blog?

The concept of this over active immune system is actually one that I’ve found really interesting. If we’ve got an immune system that is causing us harm, then how has that evolved? This is one of the questions that I would really love to answer. Regardless of that question, this over active immune system process, is involved in a huge number of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, malaria, diabetes, cardio vascular disease – all of these disease have a huge involvement with an over active immune system.

If we can understand how this is happening and potentially find ways we can inhibit this response without causing damage to our own immune system, then hopefully we’ll be able to use drugs to treat these diseases.

How did you first get interested in inflammation?

I’ve always been interested in science and one thing that interested me was how drugs were used to treat and cure diseases, so I did pharmacology as an undergraduate. Whilst doing that I got interested in neuroscience and pain. One particular thing about pain is that you think of it as a neural process, but there’s a huge inflammatory component. As I realised this, I discovered that there’s a huge inflammatory component to almost anything you can think of and so on knowing that, I realised what better thing to do than inflammation itself.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m not really sure I was inspired by one particular scientist. I always liked the idea of the polymath. So a polymath is someone who is learned in basically everything. I did a school project once on Benjamin Franklin. He was not just a scientist, but he was an inventor, an author, a philosopher and he founded the most powerful country in the world. One really cool thing about Benjamin Franklin that I always liked was that he was one of those really cool types of scientist that just used to test stuff on himself. This is something that I’ve always thought was in days gone by, but in actual fact I had a meeting with someone recently who wanted to know whether or not something was involved in pain. Instead of doing any tests on animals or cells, he just bought it on the internet and injected it in himself to see if it caused any pain. As far as I know, he’s still alive and interestingly it didn’t cause pain. This is something I’ve always inspired to be, a scientist like that – a really cool scientist.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The Faculty of Life science here at Manchester provided the perfect foundations for me to build a successful PhD. In terms of facilities I have the ability to go to any state of the art facility where I’ll have expert advice on experimental planning, the design and the execution of the experiment and even data analysis. The staff are really supportive and help you build your experiments, but at the same time, they’ll let you go and do your own thing. Also the whole ethos behind the faculty allows a kind of environment where it’s enjoyable to come into work and at the same time we can all still be focused enough to produce successful research. So yeah, thumbs up for FLS.

What do you do outside of work? 

Outside of science, I like to get involved in a lot of sport.  I play football, tennis, badminton, squash – anything I can really get my hands on, although all fairly badly. At the weekends, I like to get myself up a mountain somewhere and do a bit of climbing.


Sea slug provides new way of analysing brain data

Sea SlugScientists say our brains may not be as complicated as we once thought – and they’re using sea slugs to prove it.

Led by Chicago-based graduate student Angela Bruno, Faculty researchers and colleagues at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago have been investigating how neurons ‘fire’ in the brain of the sea slug while it moves. Dr Mark Humphries explains why they made this interesting choice of animal:

“What happens in the brain during movement is currently only well understood for small, dedicated neural circuits. The sea slug brain has some of the complexity of higher organisms, yet has large neurons that make it possible to record a substantial amount of what is happening in the brain during movement.”

Until recently, scientists have had to study brain activity one neuron at a time. However, the latest imaging methods make it possible to take a systems approach and record entire neural networks. The resulting data flood is creating fruitful new collaborations such as this study. Dr Humphries adds:

“My role in this project was to find the hidden organisation within the data collected by the Chicago team. Describing the dynamics of a neural population and decoding the neural programme is still very challenging. We hope that this research will help to build a language and toolkit for future researchers using any network-scale recording technology.”

The researchers demonstrated how the sea slugs’ complex locomotion network can be dramatically simplified and interpreted. They found that co-active neurons formed large groups that were laid out like tiles across the network. One group’s activity was repeatedly drawing a loop across the network, leading researchers to believe that this loop is the source of constant activity needed to sustain movement. Dr Humphries concludes:

“This research introduces new methods for pulling apart neural circuits to expose their inner building blocks. Our methods could be used to help understand how brain networks change in disease states and how drugs act to restore normal brain function.”

Computer model explains how the brain selects actions with rewarding outcomes

Brain modelFaculty research conducted in conjunction with The University of Sheffield has developed a computer model which charts what happens in the brain when an action leads to a reward. The model could provide insights into the mechanisms behind motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and conditions involving abnormal learning, such as addiction. Faculty researcher Dr Mark Humphries explains:

“We wanted to look at how we learn from feedback – particularly how we learn to associate actions to new unexpected outcomes. To do this we created a series of computational models to show how the firing of dopamine neurons caused by receiving reward ultimately translates into selecting the causative action more frequently in the future.”

Research had already shown that actions are represented in the brain’s outer layer of neural tissue (the cortex) and that rewards activate neurons that release dopamine. The dopamine signals are then sent to the striatum, which plays an important role in how we select which action to take. Together, this evidence suggested that dopamine signals change the strength of connections between cortical and striatal neurons, determining which action is appropriate in a specific circumstance. Until now, though, no model had tested these strands together. Dr Humphries explains why they created the model:

“Essentially, within this area of research, we are tackling a puzzle in which we have an unknown number of pieces and no picture to guide us. Some pieces have been studied individually, so the questions were: could we put the pieces of the puzzle together and prove that they made a coherent picture? And could we guess at the missing pieces? The only way was through using a computational model, which allows us to do things impossible in experiments – provide solutions and guesses for the missing pieces. The fact that the pieces of our puzzle all fitted together to produce a single coherent picture is evidence that we (as a field) are converging on a complete theory for how the brain learns from reward.”